‘Darien told us you’ve got Claire Baker three weeks from Thursday,’ Merrick soon said, bringing Pan smoothly into the conversation. ‘The new addition, and on her first time off the Shelf. That’s impressive. The Directors must be pleased with you, to be giving you such an important job. But Claire … I don’t really know anything about her, just that you’re friends.’
‘You and Claire are friends? You never told me that. That’s so rare,‘ Mal observed with interest. ‘How did you become friends with a girl?’
We were neighbours in the third ward. Our guardians were friends.
‘Still, I’m surprised her guardian let her see anyone aside from her foster brothers.’
We were the same age, and her brothers were so much older. She was lonely. My guardian heard of this, and took me to meet her.
‘So you were her only playmate growing up?’ Merrick asked, looking a little jealous. Most boys didn’t know any girls personally. Though they saw women constantly as escorts, it wasn’t the same thing. The women on the Shelves were not their friends. For obvious reasons, such relationships were difficult to build, even with those they escorted most often. The women were their jobs. And however fond they may grow of them, that was what they had to remain.
For a long time, yes. I was the only other person she knew. I introduced her to some of my friends when we were older, and her guardian slightly less protective. He’d started letting her leave the house a few more times a year, in any case.
‘And that’s when you started causing trouble, wasn’t it?’
Pan chuckled weakly while the others laughed. But Darien didn’t laugh long, crinkles of the cheery smile about his wide cornflower eyes fading, turning his youthful face far more grave.
‘I remember,’ he said seriously, ‘when you first arrived here.’
How? Pan asked. We didn’t know each other yet. Why would you remember me?
‘You’re hard to miss.’
What do you mean? Pan asked curiously.
Darien didn’t elaborate. Pan would object, never believing that half of the boys in the castle had fallen in love with his face the day he’d arrived, white and trembling before the towering marble structure that was to be his new home and prison. It was no wonder really, given who his mother was. By first glance, every one of them had known the new boy was Lilian Mason’s son. Most whose hearts he’d unknowingly captured still regarded him with longing even as he transitioned from child to man, a phase so awkward for most that Pan handled with grace. But all were now far too afraid to even think of touching him.
‘You were constantly on the verge of tears, and had a startle reflex so amplified it was like the world sought to hunt you down. And that was before you were assigned to Beron. If by ordering miscreants here the main purpose is for them to regret past actions, you should have been sent home after three days.‘
Sometimes I wish they had sent me home.
The others, save Darien, looked rather uncomfortable. ‘It hasn’t been all terrible, has it?’ Merrick asked hesitantly.
No, of course not, Pan reassured him. Sometimes I wish that, that’s all. On bad days. But if I wasn’t made an escort, I wouldn’t have met all of you. I wouldn’t know my mother and Georgiana, and I’d never have been able to see Claire again.
He wanted so much to see her again. Even though it was her fault. If she hadn’t been so free-spirited, he never would have been ordered to the castle. When he articulated this, Jarred gave a loud laugh. ‘I’ll give you due credit – you do stand by your story.’
I never did any of it, Pan replied staunchly. I was just nearby when it happened.